Monday, June 8, 2009

Research: When Art Offends

State Historian Keith Petersen said the mural ( that depicts two armed white men about to lynch a shirtless American Indian) has been controversial since it was unveiled in 1940 but not because of the subject matter. "People thought it was just bad art,"  Petersen said complaints gradually centered around the lynching, coming to a head in 2007, when the Legislature moved in. Some lawmakers had favored removing the painting until representatives of the area's five Native-American tribes came up with the idea for the plaques, which describe the violent clash of native and white cultures in the pioneer settlement of the Boise Valley. "You don't want to whitewash history or erase it," he said.


"Art is always in a political context," Gary Casteel said. "Even Monet's paintings of pretty lily fields could make a political statement if you are an environmental activist."

Stanford University art historian Michael Marrinan said works of art often have suffered from changing attitudes. Heroic paintings of Napoleon were displayed for years in the Louvre, taken down when political fortunes changed and then hung again when a new regime came into power. "Anytime a work is political, it is going to have a shelf life," he said. "We may not agree with it anymore, but it is part of our heritage."

Despite the stereotypical images in the mural in his courtroom, Wingate said he would like to see it preserved, but it does not belong in a courtroom, where everyone should feel equal. "On the other hand, it should not be destroyed because it is our history," he said.

"...for whatever reason — its illuminated red eyes or hyper-realistic anatomy — "Mustang" has sparked intense reactions pro and con, and those responses can be seen as a total validation of the piece.

Meaningful art is never neutral or innocuous. It provokes thought and stirs emotions. It irritates. It inspires. It can be seen a dozen times and still offer new dimension on the 13th viewing.

If there is any lesson to take from this debate, it is this: Art matters. And public art — work outside museums in the everyday world — matters not just to art cognoscenti but also to ordinary people like Hultin who don't necessarily have strong backgrounds in the field.:


Anonymous said...

"...Meaningful art is never neutral or innocuous..."

Is it meaningful because it is not neutral or is it 'read' to be not neutral because those-in-the-know have attached meaningfulness to it?

Gadfly said...

Wow. What a conundrum.

It's a mural. You can't move it without destroying it -- and that would be a bit philistine.

But it certainly has no place in that courtroom o_O

Lakota said...

Anon - interestingly enough this is what most of the FB commenters focused on as well. There is a bit of spin doctor in most artists i think - at least those of the conceptual bend and not all art is created to make some grand social commentary or "awaken" an awareness in the viewing public. But i do think it is the public that consents to agree when a particular work of art hits a nerve and speaks in a loud voice to the majority. What is interesting is what it says at one point in time is not necessarily what it says at another point in time when cultural/societal relevance enters the equation. Or visa versa - what was once possibly created without agenda and subtext suddenly is imbued with it due to the place we as a society have arrived at.

Gaddy - that is exactly the conundrum i'm wrestling with and i think will be the focus of the show Wed. I don't condone censorship of the arts but neither do i feel comfortable with art that is negative or demeaning being on display in public places where the viewer's choice to see or not see the art is taken away - such as in a government building. In a museum or gallery, you can always elect to NOT go view something that you know you will find offense. That said - the idea of destroying art for any reason is anathema to me. It brings to mind books burnings and sculptures being destroyed just because one culture at one point in time views it as offensive.

Anonymous said...

"...what was once possibly created without agenda and subtext suddenly is imbued with it due to the place we as a society have arrived at..."

Like the swastika for instance.

Lakota said...

Good example Anon. A symbol that once stood for life, sun, power, and strength now is undeniably a symbol of evil and oppression.

Anonymous said...

The swastika is still used in India as a symbol for one of the political parties - there is NO NAZI affiliation attached to it there.

Linda Bergen said...

So, what to do about a controversial mural located in a public place, like the piece in the courtroom? The solution would be to either remove the wall and move it to a museum or hang draperies over the painting. The piece should neither be destroyed nor visible in the public courtroom. Controversial art is fine as long as, as Lakota has said, the public has a choice of whether or not to experience it.